CHRISTMAS IN COLONIAL AMERICA
Reach back. Reach all the way back into the season of America’s birth to understand the origins of the American Christmas that has been exported throughout the entire world. Penne L. Restad’s incredible book, Christmas in America, is a must-read for those interested in the colonial history of Christmas. The stark reality is that “Americans celebrated few holidays before independence and even fewer after.” The sparseness of the American calendars seems even more unusual when one considers the almost universal appearance and function of holidays in cultures throughout the world. Just as the Lord our God marks His people’s years according to festivals, so does the nations.
Social and economic upheavals mark the turbulent times when the English Christmas entered Virginia and New England. Remember that Cromwellian England had outlawed Christmas. After a decade of Puritan rule, Parliament restored the Stuarts to England’s throne in 1660. Once Charles II had the crown on his head, the previously forbidden holiday rituals were promoted with even a greater zeal than before. We need to note that this restorer of Christmas gave England “twenty-five years of jolly sexual intrigue, extravagant private entertainments, and baroque scandals.” Virtuous is not the word that would come to mind. His mistresses and illegitimate children would testify to this fact.
In support of the Revolution, patriots revoked all official British holidays on all thirteen colonial calendars, but they did nothing to replace them. Consequently, the American calendars (no single calendar served all the colonists) looked more barren than they did in the early seventeenth century. It was almost like the one nation under God had a blank celebratory canvas with two main placeholders: Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. A smattering of colonists from various cultures celebrated Christmas and New Year’s Day too.
Like our modern America, Virginia tended to have a broadly permissive approach to Christmas, which contrasted sharply with the prevailing attitude in New England. Note the predominance of mixture in the way the Virginia Gazette recounted the history of Christmas in 1739: “Some Christians ‘celebrate this Season in a Mixture of Piety and Licentiousness,” others ‘in a pious Way only,’ others ‘behave themselves profusely and extravagantly alone.’ The last category was comprised of the many who ‘pass over the Holy Time, without paying any Regard to it at all.’ The writer concluded that… ‘the Little Liberties of the old Roman December, which are taken by the Multitude, ought to be overlooked and excused, for an Hundred Reasons…”. Notice that this quote is talking about Christians. Two of the ways Christians celebrated Christmas were: (1) with a mixture of piety and licentiousness, and (2) behaving profusely and extravagantly alone. Also notice this author makes provision for the flesh – “the little Liberties of the old Roman December… ought to be overlooked and excused” for a hundred reasons. If I had a dime for every time I have heard this excuse, I could almost buy Manhattan.
Drinking, fighting, revelry, and squandering money had become a fairly routine way to spend almost any holiday throughout the colonies. These vices especially fit with Christmas. America free-form holiday mayhem differed somewhat from the Europe’s ritualized revelry of mumming and masquerading, but they both can be described as a “temporary plunge into chaos.”
This should not surprise us when we consider that its roots come from the first and supreme man to open the door to a massive and mighty spread of chaos – Nimrod, the then-known world’s leader at the Tower of Babel. There has always been a general license of licentiousness to the season. The annual indulgence of excessive eating, drinking, gambling, revelry, et cetera (discouraged in and by the Church the rest of the year) became overlooked as everyone, Christians and non-Christians alike, devoted much of their holiday season to pagan pleasures.
Americans only began to celebrate Christmas widely in the late nineteenth century, which corresponded with America’s struggle to find her own identity. Christmas emerged through circumstances cast by the American Revolution, not to mention the worldwide revolution in commerce and industry. It was modeled in a time of titanic progress and change. There was a need for social harmony… something universal in nature.
What briefly unites a dissimilar people more than a celebration? The answer is nothing. Christmas being the most important national holiday within America today testifies to this certainty. It was man’s inventive way for binding American society together. In the 1820s, Christmas was meant to provide an antidote for the ills of modern life. As evidenced by our increasingly depraved society, the cure is yet to be seen. I love this country. I love the opportunity and freedom it affords, but I am concerned when I listen to the nightly news. Madness seems to be in the air. Just after the Civil War, the American Christmas matured, and began to take on a metastasizing life of its own. A knowledgeable glance at Christmas reveals that commerce is her veiled name, and trade is her resourceful game.
Copyright Dec. 26, 2012 – Author: Robin Main.
The information in this article and more details can be found in Chapter 9 “The One To Be Sacrificed” in my book: SANTA-TIZING: What’s wrong with Christmas and how to clean it up (available on amazon http://www.amazon.com/SANTA-TIZING-Whats-wrong-Christmas-clean/dp/1607911159/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1353692179&sr=1-1&keywords=SANTA_TIZING).
 Christmas in America: A History by Penne L. Restad, chapter 2, p. 17
 Ibid., chapter 2, p. 18
 Gotham, A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows & Mike Wallace, chapter 5, p. 71
 Christmas in America: A History by Penne L. Restad, chapter 2, p. 20
 Ibid., p. 21
 Ibid., chapter 1, p. 13
Ibid., chapter 2, p. 19
 Ibid., chapter 3, p. 38
 Ibid., chapter 2, p. 19
 Ibid., Forward p. viii
 Ibid., chapter 2, p. 27